All airlines face review

The Baltimore Sun

Under fire for lax oversight of inspections at Southwest Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday ordered an audit of maintenance records at all other U.S. carriers.

The FAA's 4,000 inspectors nationwide are to spot-check all airlines' inspection paperwork within the next 10 days to ensure that the fleets have complied with safety directives, including the two that Southwest was charged with neglecting.

"One carrier's noncompliance ... makes it necessary for us to validate our system for overseeing your management of this regulatory requirement," Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, wrote in an e-mail to airline officials.

The FAA two weeks ago proposed a $10.2 million fine against Southwest for skipping checks of older Boeing 737s and not checking the fuselages for potentially dangerous cracks as required under a 2004 aging-aircraft safety directive.

The agency also said that when Southwest discovered the missed inspections, it continued to fly the planes.

Southwest, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, grounded 43 planes last week after its internal audit raised questions about required inspections around window areas. On reinspection, four of those planes were found to have small cracks, were repaired and returned to service Sunday, Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said.

"Everything is running normally for us right now," Eichinger said.

"We're still continuing an internal investigation of our maintenance policies and making ourselves fully prepared to work with the FAA on this issue," Eichinger said.

Since the Southwest violations surfaced, questions have been raised about potential maintenance lapses at other airlines and the FAA's oversight. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which said FAA inspectors who knew Southwest had missed the inspections allowed the flights to continue, criticized the agency for overly cozy relationships with the airlines.

Yesterday, Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a senior member of the committee, said the FAA also needs to examine itself.

"While the FAA looks into the air carriers it is charged with regulating, it also [should] examine the adequacy of its own oversight activities," Cummings said. "Southwest should never have been out of compliance with any directive in the first place, and we must get to the bottom of how this was allowed to happen - particularly when it appears that FAA personnel were aware of the noncompliance."

FAA acting Administrator Robert Sturgell said inspectors would complete an initial review of the airlines by March 28, with a full safety audit due June 30.

In a hearing April 3, Cummings' committee will also investigate whether airlines' moves to increasingly outsource maintenance work led to oversight issues.

Last week Southwest suspended plans to outsource some airframe maintenance work to El Salvador.

Southwest was one of the first domestic carriers to outsource maintenance, a move other carriers have made in an effort to cut costs, said Frederick Mirgle, an aviation maintenance expert at Embry-Riddle University, a Florida college known for training airline workers. As airlines struggle with an economic slowdown and high fuel prices, there's more pressure to delay preventive maintenance, Mirgle added. "They're tightening their belts more," he said. "The maintenance is still being done to a satisfactory level, but you may put things off for a year or two that don't have to be done right now."

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